After 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of U.S. troops killed could be demonstrated with 6,300 flag-draped caskets. During that same time in the U.S., 20,000 small caskets draped with baby blankets would show the number of children dead of child abuse.Eighty percent are under age 4. Eighty percent die in their own home at the hands of their biological parents, says investigative journalist and author Karen Spears Zacharias, who calls the statistics “a national shame.”
“It’s an explosive topic,” says Zacharias, 55, who teaches journalism at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. “In my mind what we have is a real life ‘Hunger Games’ situation, but instead of children slaughtering children, we have adults slaughtering children and others standing around.”
Zacharias is the author of “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder,” the true story of the life and death of 3-year-old Karly Sheehan of Corvallis, Ore., who died after reports of abuse to authorities went unanswered. Zacharias, a former cops reporter, found herself a character in the story. Karly’s mother, Sarah, once lived in the Zacharias home as family.
Compelled to consider her own culpability in Karly’s death, Zacharias pieces together what happened through court documents, investigators’ interviews, and interviews with friends, family, law enforcement officials and key witnesses. Crime writer Ann Rule calls it a must read. “Compelling and heartbreaking.”
Zacharias will present her book 2-6 p.m. Friday at And Books Too in Clarkston.
Karly was surrounded by educated, higher income, evangelical people, Zacharias says. Her parents were both from good homes, so how could this happen? Zacharias believes this question is what draws standing-room-only crowds to her talks.
“Underneath it all, people know there’s a crisis. They may not know the numbers but they know families in crisis,” Zacharias says.
The book’s title refers to a mockingbird’s tendency to stand up to any predator regardless of its size and not back down. These children don’t need someone to feel bad for them, she says. “They need someone to speak for them.”
In Karly’s case, people reported abuse to the authorities but that wasn’t enough.
“You shouldn’t just make one report,” Zacharias says. “If this was your child you would be in somebody’s face until you were heard. You have to treat that child like it’s your child.”
One reason child abuse is rampant is because people view children as somebody else’s property, not as a human being, she says.
“We need people to get engaged, to get out from behind their computers and get engaged with the children in their own circles. We will travel across the world to advocate for people in other countries, meanwhile in our own country, they are dying in our neighborhood and we’re not intervening.”
Statistics show that if even the most severely abused children have one adult in their life who will advocate for them and believe them it will give that child the resiliency to go on, she says.
Karly’s case inspired a 2008 Oregon law in her name that mandates prompt child-abuse investigations when children show suspicious injuries. The year after the law passed in Oregon, the state’s child abuse center saw its numbers increase by a third, says Zacharias, who is working with child abuse assessment teams, child abuse centers and law enforcement agencies around the country to create a national policy similar to Oregon’s state law.
“Children don’t vote. They have no power. The only people who can advocate for children are us. Until we demand change, 1,700 to 2,000 children will continue to die each year.”
Child abuse experts would tell you that number is higher and doesn’t account for those suffering from physical, emotional abuse and neglect, she says, and the long-term effects of that abuse on their psyche and on society.
“It takes a child who has been abused three times telling an adult before an adult hears that child,” she says.
Those are the children who can and do talk. Children younger than 2 can’t verbalize what is happening to them. Older children love their parents and don’t want to get them in trouble.
She asks audiences, “Do you know the names of the children who live next door to you? Do they know your name? If they have a problem in their homes do they feel comfortable coming to you and telling you, ‘My mommy is passing out’ or ‘Something bad is happening to me’?”
She believes that every person who hears her talk represents a child that can be saved.
“That person goes out and becomes an advocate for a community of children. You be the change you want to see in the world. I believe that.”
Karly’s story has a message for people, she says, if they will only open their hearts to it.
“A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder”
by Karen Spears Zacharias
325 pages, $25